Opinion

The culture war in a tuna fish sandwich

There is nothing more revealing about American politics than Kamala Harris making tuna melts with Mark Warner

The most trivial matters can sometimes feel freighted with significance. Indeed, in our meme-besotted age, they sometimes feel like the only things we freight with significance, as we read an entire nation's history into fleeting interactions that we call micro-aggressions.

In that spirit (and with a bit of poetic license): Come in under the shadow of YouTube, and I will show you something different from either the shadow of the Covid depression lingering behind us, or the shadow of climate change looming to meet us. I will show you the culture war in a tuna fish sandwich.

Back in April, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) made and released a video on how to make a tuna melt. I presume he saw it as a way of relating to his constituents, who were largely stuck at home and may have struggled with the logistics of feeding themselves during pandemic times. What's a meal that works on a budget, uses mostly long-lived ingredients, is extremely simple to make and famously kid-friendly? Answer: a tuna melt. And here's your senator ready to show you how he makes one, giving you information you might be able to use, and not incidentally revealing how relatable he is in the process.

There was only one problem: His sandwich was all wrong. He put mayonnaise on the potato bread, but none in the tuna — indeed, he didn't make a tuna salad at all, but simply put the tuna on the bread directly from the can. Then, after adding slices of Velveeta, he put the sandwich in the microwave.

Someone had to school this poor fool. Fortunately, the Senate's premier foodie, Kamala Harris, was ready to set her colleague straight. She made her own video, in which she showed him step by step how a tuna melt is properly made. She expertly minced the celery and red onion. She drained the canned tuna and deftly mixed a salad with the minced vegetables and mayonnaise. And she gently explained that a tuna melt is supposed to be heated in a pan, not a microwave.

Now, I'm a bit of a foodie myself, so game recognize game: Harris prepared a darned good sandwich. I would be glad to discuss with her the relative merits of cheddar versus gruyere; I'd love to learn whether she'd ever added added lemon zest or fresh dill. And, in the spirit of quarantine cooking, when fresh ingredients are scarce I'd be interested to know what dried spices she considers enhancements (cumin? oregano? fennel seed?) versus which would be a waste (basil?) or even a detriment.

And then I thought: If I'm happy, this video isn't helping her.

Throughout the video, Warner mocks Harris in a defensive tone, and the way in which he mocks her is instructive. He points out how long it's taking her; he could have finished eating his sandwich by the time she's finished making hers. He notes that her mayonnaise is from Whole Foods (she apologizes for not having Hellmann's) and that her bread isn't the honest potato bread he favors. He extols the virtues of pre-sliced cheese (“I'm a two-slice man”) versus the block cheddar that she has to slice herself. There's an element of masculine insecurity at work, but the heart of Warner's schtick is class-based. He makes a sandwich the way an ordinary guy would. Harris is an elitist for making too much of the tuna.

But Warner is making his sandwich in his auxiliary kitchen. The down-home ordinary guy who uses off-brand mayo and microwaves his tuna melts has two kitchens. Harris even points this out, noting that she only has one kitchen (it's a very nice kitchen), but Warner just brushes it off. Because that's not what “class” means in America to folks energized by the culture war. You can be as wealthy as you like, but if you make crappy tuna sandwiches, you're just folks.

That's ridiculous of course. But it's a reality — a reality that the Democratic Party has spent the past two decades struggling to grapple with.

Perhaps you think I'm being excessive. So why was Harris responding to Warner's video in the first place? Presumably, she also wanted to stay in front of her constituents during the pandemic, providing them a little entertainment (she certainly succeeded at that) as well as some genuinely useful cooking tips (you actually could learn something from her about making a decent tuna melt). But wasn't she possibly also getting some traction with her voters by showing up a fellow senator — a male senator — on a domestic subject he introduced? Wasn't she showing off about how she really can have it all, be a great cook and a powerful senator — and a potential vice president? And what does that say about her constituents if she was, and that schtick worked?

The domesticity of the situation made me wonder how the whole thing would have played out in times gone by. In the 1970s, Warner might have tried making a tuna melt for his kid, failed miserably, and finally gone for takeout. In the early 1990s, Harris might have objected to the suggestion that she should stay home and make tuna melts when she had a serious profession to pursue. Absurd though it might be, the symbolism would say something meaningful about real changes in gender roles.

In our era, though, senators are Instagram influencers as much as they are legislators, their kitchens stages where they whip up their brands. And Americans seem to care about those personae at least as much as they do anything real, enough that we're willing to risk our very lives over the purported symbolic value of something like refusing to wear a face mask.

I have no idea whether Mark Warner actually eats tuna melts, much less cooks them. Pre-Covid, perhaps he took all his meals at the Capitol Grille. But you know what they say about authenticity: Once you know how to fake that, you've got it made. And while I have no doubt Harris can fake outrage and fake commitment, I don't know how well she can fake authenticity.

Warner and Harris are both Democrats, and the Democrats need the support of both their tribes to win a governing majority. Because they're up against a man who's not only a world-historically terrible president but a world-historical master of the influencer game. His cooking show would feature extravagance combined with utter incompetence — he wouldn't know where basic utensils were or how to use them; he'd have an insouciance about proper ingredients and a baseless confidence in the deliciousness of his creations; the kitchen would be enormous and spotless, but he'd fail to practice the most basic hygiene.

And if you want to see how such a gross recipe might still hold mass appeal, then behold: I will show you fear in Paris Hilton's lasagna.

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